Reading Machiavelli in Iraq

Reading Machiavelli in Iraq

Mini Teaser: Machiavelli’s political analyses on civic life in Italy’s fifteenth-century city-states offer a good starting point for those interested in determining the best way forward for today’s Iraq.

by Author(s): Kenneth M. Pollack

Because of its own weakness and the efforts of various internal factions to secure the help of like-minded foreigners, Iraq’s relations with its neighbors have become horrifyingly convoluted. Its two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, have forged a good working relationship with each other, although this may only last for as long as PUK leader Jalal Talabani lives. But the KDP is heavily backed by the Turks, whereas the PUK is dominated by Iran (and not in a benevolent way). Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and, to a certain extent, Turkey. Ankara has tried to serve as a bridge between the KDP and the Sunni Arabs; this, coupled with their common fear and hatred of Maliki, has brought them together more than usual. On the other side, Iran backs all of the Shia groups to a greater or lesser extent, with some important exceptions such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has broken with Tehran and is trying to subsist as a purely Iraqi entity, with distressing results so far. The other major Shia factions all rely on Iran, even though the two most important—Maliki’s State of Law and the Sadrist Trend—hate both Iran and each other.

Much of Iraq’s internal politics is being driven by the interests of these external states. Iran has made huge gains in filling much of the void left by the American withdrawal. This is important for Tehran because Iraq is a key neighbor, trading partner, former foe and potential rival Shia power. Moreover, Iraq is now important to Tehran as a conduit to smuggle out Iranian oil exports, a channel to provide support to its oldest ally, the Shia Alawites of Syria, and a potential replacement if the Alawites ultimately lose the civil war there. But Turkey and the Gulf states fear Iranian domination of Iraq just as much as the Iraqis do. In 2006, when it seemed as if the Iranian-backed Shia militias were winning the Iraqi civil war, the Saudis famously threatened to intervene militarily on behalf of the Sunni groups. Today, Ankara has assured the Kurds that if Maliki attempts to use force against them, Turkey will intervene to stop him. And, while Turkish officials duly intone their traditional preference for Iraq’s territorial unity, there is far less vehemence about this than in the past. In fact, some in Turkey are beginning to argue privately that there are worse things for Ankara than an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

Not only are Iraq’s neighbors trying to pull the country in very different directions—and threatening to tear it apart in the process—but spillover from the Syrian civil war also is antagonizing and galvanizing its factions, prying at these same fissures. The Shia parties that dominate the government increasingly side with Assad’s Shia Alawite faction in Syria (in part because of Iranian pressure to do so). And in similar fashion, many Iraqi Sunnis sympathize with their coreligionists across the border. The fact that many Sunni Arab tribes span the border simply adds fuel to that fire: the Shammaris, Dulaimis, Ubaydis and other tribesmen of Iraq are glad to help their cousins across the border fight the Shia regime in Damascus. Likewise, the Kurds of Iraq feel kinship with the Kurds of Syria, and there is a struggle between Barzani’s KDP and the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, allied to the Alawite regime. This reinforces the KDP’s rivalry with Maliki.

With all of these machinations playing out across the country and the region, it should not be surprising that tensions are rising and violence is slowly increasing in Iraq.

Iraq Adrift

At the end of The Prince, Machiavelli famously cries out for some great Italian lord to employ the methods he described to save Italy from its foreign foes and from itself by uniting the country and building a strong state that could quell internal divisions and resist external domination. To many readers, it seems utterly incongruous coming at the end of a long, dispassionate discourse on the callous truths of politics, war and diplomacy.

Looking at Iraq across the oceans, it is tempting to make a similar plea—to cry out for some powerful but well-meaning nation to rescue Iraq from itself and from its neighbors by championing the cause of Iraqi democracy against its myriad foes, foreign and domestic. But there is no point in doing so. The only nation with the strength to do so is the United States, and the United States has departed from Iraq, never to return. The next U.S. administration—whether it is the same or different—is not going to return thousands of troops to Iraq. Nor will any Iraqi government invite Washington to do so anytime soon.

Iraq is passing beyond America’s power to shape it. The United States largely gave up that power, squandering it under Bush 43 and surrendering it under Obama. Unfortunately, the continuing global addiction to oil means that Iraq’s future remains of great importance to the United States, and its resurgent failings raise concerns that in the future it will create as many problems for the United States as it has in the past.

Still, there are things Washington could do to coax Iraq toward a better path. American diplomats were critical to brokering the partial—but very hopeful—deal on oil exports struck between Baghdad and Erbil in September, indicating that there are still opportunities for the United States to have a positive impact in Iraq. We could rebuild our leverage with Baghdad by offering a wider range of military and civilian aid. Perhaps of greater value, we could continue to call Iraq’s political leaders on their actions, defining what “right” looks like and using our moral authority as the architects of Iraqi democracy to see its leaders conform to both the letter and the spirit of its system. But we must recognize that even that will be of limited value. As great a nation as the United States is, its power is limited—especially when there is no will to wield it.

Today’s Iraq owns its future. It looks uncertain at best, and we may not be able to escape the consequences should it fail. After Machiavelli finished The Prince, Italy endured four and a half centuries of further civil strife, foreign invasion, misrule, poverty and weakness before emerging as something vaguely like what he had envisioned in the Discourses. Would that Iraq does better.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a contributing editor to The National Interest and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The title of this essay is, of course, an appreciation of Azar Nafisi’s remarkable work, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Image: Pullquote: Iraq today is a place that Machiavelli would have understood well. It is a weak state, riven by factions, with an embryonic democratic system increasingly undermined from within and without.Essay Types: Essay